12 | Sound design & soundscapes - with Dan Dugan

May 09, 2020 Soundproofist with Dan Dugan Episode 12
12 | Sound design & soundscapes - with Dan Dugan
12 | Sound design & soundscapes - with Dan Dugan
May 09, 2020 Episode 12
Soundproofist with Dan Dugan

Dan Dugan is a sound designer and inventor of the automatic microphone mixer, a key component in professional audio tools. He also records soundscapes in natural environments through his work with the Nature Sounds Society. In this episode, Dan discusses how he got involved in theatrical sound and professional audio, and his more recent work doing field recordings. He also makes some observations about the change in our soundscapes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Show Notes Transcript

Dan Dugan is a sound designer and inventor of the automatic microphone mixer, a key component in professional audio tools. He also records soundscapes in natural environments through his work with the Nature Sounds Society. In this episode, Dan discusses how he got involved in theatrical sound and professional audio, and his more recent work doing field recordings. He also makes some observations about the change in our soundscapes during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Cary (00:07):
This is episode 12 of Soundproofist. My name is Cary.

Phill (00:12):
And this is Phill.

Cary (00:14):
And today we’re going to talk with Dan Dugan, an audio engineer and sound designer who invented the first automatic microphone mixer, which is used today in many mixing consoles and other audio equipment. Dan is also a field recordist and a board member of the Nature Sound Society. He’s captured the soundscapes of many national parks and monuments. We’re going to talk about his sound design work and his soundscape recording today.

Phill (00:43):
If you do an internet search for 'sound design San Francisco,' Dan Dugan is one of the first names that comes up. Indeed, he is a long-time expert and figure in the audio community here. I first met him through the Nature Sound Society. And I’m really curious to learn more about his personal history and his work with the automatic mixer and Dan Dugan Sound Design, as well as his work with the Nature Sound Society and their partnership with the national parks.

Cary (01:13):
I thought we would start from the beginning. And I know you’ve answered this question a few times in other interviews, but I’d like to know for our listeners: how and why did you start Dan Dugan Sound?

Dan Dugan (01:25):
Well, let’s see. My first career was as a lighting designer when I was a kid. You know, like in grammar school I was the AV kid and I was the person who threaded the film strip projector. I was the person who threaded the 16-millimeter projector. I was the person who set up the tape recorder when they wanted to play something,. This was in the fifties. And then eventually I got up on a ladder and started adjusting the lights on the auditorium stage in my grammar school because nobody ever adjusted anything. And of course some of the bulbs were out and everything like that. So, that was my first stage-lighting experience. And my parents would take me to the theater and concerts, which was very enriching, and I would always want to go backstage and see the light board, wherever we went.

Dan Dugan (02:18):
Because I wanted to be a light man. So then in high school I did all the lighting for the high school, minimal couple of plays I think. And I was in a choir, which got turned into a magical group for the Shakespeare festival. And so I went every night to the Shakespeare festival to sing on the green, on a pre show. And then I could sneak in the theater and go up to the light booth and stand behind the lighting operator and watch the Shakespeare festival, from the light booth, which was just heaven. And, so that’s how I got hooked on theater technology. And then when I went to college, I was very lucky to go to a college, University of San Francisco, that had no drama program, no official drama degree or anything like that.

Dan Dugan (03:09):
It was a student activity. There was the college players, which did four plays a year. And so I immediately joined the college players and started doing lighting. And so for the four years I hung out at the college, I lit all the plays. So that was 16 plays. And I also lit the concert series that they had at the USF gymnasium. And so I did Harry Belafonte and all kinds of neat traveling acts -–Joan Baez, that we showed in the gymnasium. So I got a lot of experience in college and I got so into it that after a year of going to school I dropped out. And just stayed at college for three more years doing nothing but lighting and sound. Because also along with the lighting I would do sound for the plays, which was a small theater. So there was no reinforcement, but there were always sound effects and things like that and music and things.

Dan Dugan (04:10):
So I did lighting and sound as a full-time occupation for four years in college. And then when I would have graduated in ’65, I started to get professional jobs. Well, the summer of ’64, actually I was hired to do sound at the San Diego Shakespeare Festival, which was a combination sound designer and operator. And so I sat in that seat and ran the shows. And that was the first time they had stereo at the Old Globe in San Diego’s summer of ’64. And then in the spring of ’65, I was hired to be the lighting designer for the San Diego National Shakespeare Festival. And I was also hired to do the lighting for the first production of the San Diego opera in the new Civic Opera House, which is a big, huge production. And so that’s how my career got started.

Dan Dugan (05:08):
And also at that point I got drafted. And fortunately I didn’t go to the war. When I came back in ’67, I came to San Francisco. And you know, if you work in one regional repertory theater and when you go to another one, several years later, you will know several people in that company. Because people circulate in that business. And so I knew people in San Francisco, and they did not need a lighting designer at ACT in San Francisco the local, regional repertory company. But they did need somebody to do sound. And so that basically was the time that I switched over to doing sound full time, which was in ’67. And then I worked for ACT and I built systems for their two theaters and I built their production studio. And then in ’68 I got fired for insubordination.

Cary (06:09):
From a theater?

Dan Dugan (06:10):
Yeah. Well, you know, the principles of American theater directors are that all creativity springs from their forehead. The director often feels obligated to dictate everything because they can. And so there isn’t a whole lot of collaboration that goes on in a lot of theater situations. And my creativity was severely clamped by that process. And so I did some things in the theater that were against the rules. This was the famous director Bill Ball, who had a very strict rule about sound. And that was that all sound must come from proscenium, because he was afraid that if sound came from any kind of surround or over the proscenium, or anywhere that would distract people. And he wanted total control of the audience’s attention at all times. And so I hung some speakers outside the proscenium and that was my end at ACT.

Dan Dugan (07:17):
But anyway, that was when I became independent and became a sound designer, a theatrical sound designer. And that was where the title “sound designer” was created. The production stage manager at ACT and for the ’68 season, ’68, ’69 season, created a design category called “sound design.” And I was the first person to be in the program listed as sound designer. And so that’s the reason I call my business “Dan Dugan Sound Design.” Because I want to keep that name alive. And now we have sound design in films and everything, and I’m thrilled that… Now I wasn’t the first person to do sound design, but I was the first person to be in the program.

Cary (08:04):
Oh, that’s pretty cool. And it sounds like you actually didn’t get a formal education in audio technology. You’re self-taught. Is that correct?

Dan Dugan (08:12):
No. I had some mentors and some of the mentors were very good, and some of the mentors taught me things that were wrong. You know, sound was a pretty wild field in the late sixties.

Phill (08:27):
I think we still have some of that misinformation going around today.

Dan Dugan (08:30):
Yes. Yeah. So anyway, so it’s 50 years I’ve been independent in business, actually 51. So it’s been a long time.

Phill (08:41):
That’s a great story, Dan. Especially the insubordination, I didn’t know that tidbit. Can I ask regarding your mentorship and everything, I know you designed the automixer, for example. So how did you gain this kind of deeper knowledge of the electronic circuits and all that aspect of it? I could understand perhaps the hands-on training in the theater for the lighting and audio setup and all that stuff. But what about the internal components? Where did you get that knowledge?

Dan Dugan (09:10):
Well, yeah, I never had any training. What I did was I subscribed to various professional magazines. Like there was a big one called “Electronics” and they would have different columns that would have examples of circuits of various things. And I can see the need for an automatic mixer. When I was working on the production Hair in 1968 — the regional resident productions of Hair — it had been running for several years in New York and was doing very well. And so they started founding other companies. They founded one in Los Angeles and then the second one was San Francisco. And so I applied to run the sound for that, but it was a union job and I didn’t get it. But the company was impressed with the presentations I made. And so they hired me to do the next production of Hair, which was Chicago in 1968.

Dan Dugan (10:05):
And so I did the sound design for that. Not very well, I must say. I had no experience with rock sound whatsoever. I had ideas about it, which were all wrong. But it was fairly successful in that theater because it had good acoustics. Later on, other shows, my techniques were not so successful in theaters that didn’t have such good acoustics. But anyway, that was very challenging. And that made me think of the idea that, you know, there was one operator and, well, let’s see, this brings up another story. In 1968, you could not buy a mixing console. Mixing consoles were custom built for TV studios, recording studios, radio studios. The chief engineer would spend a couple of years building the board and all you could buy in terms of packaged mixers were rack-mounted mixers. So the regional resident productions of Hair used a rack of rotary knob mixers to mix this complicated show and it had I think 34 microphones.

Dan Dugan (11:13):
And so here’s this poor guy trying to mix this complicated show on 34 microphones by twisting knobs and rows in a rack. And so you can imagine what a challenge that was and how often it was bad. And so I thought that, there must be some way to bring up the mic where people are talking and take it down, take the other mics down, so you didn’t have to chase the people around and there wouldn’t be so much feedback. And so that was where the need for the automatic mixer was established. And then I spent about six years experimenting, just working on breadboards, putting together analog circuitry, and stealing circuits out of the magazines and using op amps. It was really the availability of the package to operational amplifier. You know, the 741, which was available at that time.

Dan Dugan (12:11):
You could make just about any kind of an audio circuit with a few resistors and capacitors around, on op-amp. And so that was magical. You didn’t have to really be an engineer., I mean it was gain was a ratio of two resistors. You know, it was really simple. And so the op-amp made it possible for me to design hardware. Because I had no electronic training and all, I couldn’t possibly design a two transistor amplifier at that time. But I was able to design working circuitry with op amps and so I was off… And you know, started prototyping various schemes. And after six years I came up with something that was really good.

Cary (12:55):
Six years. That’s dedication. But that’s great because look what you ended up with. And what year are we talking about when you say six years? About early seventies?

Dan Dugan (13:05):
Uh, yeah, I think so. I think the second patent, which was what we call the speech system, I think that was ’76 or something like that. Yeah. So this is the early seventies that I was doing the development.

Cary (13:19):
And I think probably in that time period since you said everything was custom made, you were making it for a smaller group of people. Because not everyone could just kind of set up their own studio. Back then it was more of a, like you said, TV networks or recording studios.

Dan Dugan (13:35):
Yeah, and I did not have a mixing console myself and nor did I did I build one. I just built automatic mixing circuitry that could be patched into a console and that’s still the major form in which my own products are made. I make a line of black boxes that retrofit automatic mixing into existing mixing consoles.

Cary (14:00):
Okay. So yeah, I was going to ask you, what are some of the audio tools that… Your patented audio tools, where are they being used now? What systems?

Dan Dugan (14:11):
Twenty years ago, I could tell you where they were, but it’s really all over the place. And there are also thousands and thousands of what I call my “honorable imitators” because the patents are long expired. And so people can imitate it, and some of them do it fairly well and some of them don’t. And so there’s Dugan-like automatic mixing all over the place. There’s some of these, maybe as many as 10 mixing console manufacturers now who are honorable imitators. And then there’s my licensees, which are Yamaha and Sound Devices for the portable equipment and some other licensing business. Hopefully in the works. I’m working more on developing licensing than actually developing products anymore. But I have my product line that I sell also, of boxes which are for adapting automatic mixing into it.

Cary (15:12):
Okay. So you say portable equipment, of course that perks up my ears. Is this something people just take with them in a bag onsite and use? And what is this portable equipment?

Dan Dugan (15:24):
Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Sound Devices is one of the major manufacturers of field recording machines. It used to be recorders and mixers, but now recording is sort of trivial, and so they make mixers that have a recorder built in.

Cary (15:41):
And how are these used? Are they used like — when you say field recordings or in nature or podcasts or where?

Dan Dugan (15:49):
Well, mostly in news and motion picture production. Television and motion picture, location production. Whenever there’s a bunch of talking heads, somewhere there’s a mixer. If it’s in the studio, then it’s a mixing console. If it’s out in the field, it’s a device like a Sonosax or Sound Devices or Zaxcom. Those are the major manufacturers field mixer.

Phill (16:17):
Well, I think this is a great moment now that we’re talking about these field mixers to transition into discussing — I’d be interested in hearing about the history of the Nature Sound Society. And also maybe we can talk a bit about your field recording work with the national parks. And, let’s just start with that note, field recording. Can you tell us how the Nature Sounds Society started?

Dan Dugan (16:40):
Well, it started at the Oakland Museum of California, which had a sound department, which is actually a large closet. And they built up an archive of nature recordings there. And so the person who ran that, Paul Master, started a society of people who were interested in that. And you know, ran it out of the office at the Oakland Museum. And I came to that probably five years after it was established or so. The Oakland Museum owned a Nagra tape recorder. And I was also, for at least 30 years, I was the Northern California Nagra service station. If someone doesn’t know what a Nagra is — a Nagra is a portable Swiss tape recorder, which was used, it became, they worked out the way to do synchronous sound to synchronize the picture with the sound recording. And so the Nagra became the standard for sound recording for motion pictures and later television in the field, everywhere in the world.

Dan Dugan (17:48):
if you saw a film crew and there was a guy with a boom mic holding the boom over the actors and you follow the wire from that boom mic back to the recorder that was slung over his shoulder, there would be a Nagra in that bag for sure. There were one or two competitors, but they were like 1%. Nagra ruled everywhere. And because in the theater now, the major tool of theatrical sound designer was the tape recorder, and tape recorders are kind of finicky things. To get really good performance, they need a lot of maintenance and tender loving care. So I had to learn how to maintain tape recorders to work as a sound designer in the theater. As you know, I tried taking him to a repair shop and they would come back not sounding good enough.

Dan Dugan (18:45):
And so I bought manuals for the machines. Service manuals. And I built Heathkit instruments– an oscillator and a harmonic analyzer and what’s called a VTV. A vacuum, two volt meter…various tools that you need to maintain tape recorders. And so I maintained like, you know, at ACT, the theater, I maintained a fleet of tape recorders there. And so when I went independent, repairing tape recorders was a good source of income. So I had a bench and someone brought me a Nagra ’cause they were unhappy. There was a lot of film production going on in San Francisco and they would send their Nagra down to Los Angeles to shops there, in Hollywood to get them serviced like me. They were not happy with the results that they got back.

Dan Dugan (19:42):
And so I learned the hard way just by messing with it and making mistakes. Because the Nagra was designed by an inventor and it had a lot of things that were different from other tape recorders. It was a very interesting machine. Like for example, it has two left-hand screws in the mechanism, for example. And so there are a lot of things you need to learn sometimes the hard way and the electronics are different. Also, they use a predistortion system, which made it sound so good. But there weren’t many tape recorders that had anything like that. So for 30 years people brought me their recorders. And that time I saw 500 Nagras and there were about twenty in the Bay area, which were working all the time. You know, there were people doing TV commercials, people doing feature films, people doing television news, you know, all the sound would be done on Nagras.

Dan Dugan (20:40):
And so I was the go to guy and I developed a technique for doing it, which I could tune up the machines to being better than the factory. And so we kind of had a cult of high-quality recording in the Bay Area, which I was, you know, a central figure in. And a lot of the motion picture recordsists were recording at 15 IPS, which was totally unknown in motion picture recording. You know, everybody in Hollywood recorded at seven and a half. So these guys up here are doing things like “The Black Stallion,” for example, the Grateful Dead movie. They’re recording at 15 IPS. So we had this cult of quality of here. So that’s, you know, get me started and I’ll tell you a long story. Sorry, that was so long, but it comes down to Paul from the Oakland Museum brought the Nagra from the museum over to be repaired in my shop.

Dan Dugan (21:36):
And he said, you know, we go up to the mountains in the Sierras and have a workshop every year where we do a nature sound recording. Would you like to come along? And I said, “Oh, that’d be great. You know, tech and nature at the same time? Wonderful.” And so I started going to the Nature Sound Society events and the rest is history. For a long time I didn’t do any recording myself because I didn’t own a Nagra. They were very expensive at the time, like $12,000 for a stereo. And I had a very finely tuned Sony Pro Walkman that I used for field recording. But that really wasn’t good enough for nature recording in my opinion. So for many years I just acted as a technical mentor. And then in about 2001, I had an intern who offered me to use his MD recorder when I was going on a trip to New Zealand. And I said, okay, I’ll take it along. Maybe I can do some nature recording. And wow. You know, it was a whole new world, digital recording, and I made basically I made a little album just with the handheld microphone stereo microphone in New Zealand and had a wonderful time. And I’ve been doing nature recording ever since.

Phill (22:57):
Dan. For our listeners out there, when you mentioned that your Sony handheld was not good enough for nature recording. Can you tell us what you mean by equipment being good enough for nature recording?

Dan Dugan (23:08):
Well, yeah. Nature recording is kind of demanding. Actually there’s kind of two classes. There’s a species hunting, which is where you go out and you’re trying to catch species, separate from the environment, which is used for scientific study and for making identification recording. And then there’s soundscape recording, which is recording everything in the soundscape in either stereo or surround. And …I got distracted by the dog barking. Repeat the question please?

Phill (23:46):
Okay. Sure. So just to summarize what you said: in nature recording, you’re either doing a species-specific recording, where you’re trying to record an individual or a species. Or soundscape recording, which captures the entire environment in the context of where everything is that soundscape recording. I’m aware of your relationship with the National Parks and you do some soundscape recordings down South in the desert, and another location as well. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Dan Dugan (24:16):
Yes. Well, the National Parks are friendly to research, scientific research. And they have a research permit program. And if you can convince them that what you’re doing could be useful to them, then you can get a research permit, which doesn’t cost anything. Which allows you to go in and camp in places where people are normally not allowed to camp and do your research. And so at the Nature Sound Society, we have developed a protocol for doing these overnight soundscape recordings. And so, we’re following a set of rules and we record the eve, we start in the evening and we record during the early evening. Like sometimes there’s an evening chorus of the birds and things. And then we stand by during the night if anything happens, you know, like coyotes or owls or trees falling or whatever might happen in the night.

Dan Dugan (25:22):
And then we record the dawn chorus in the morning, starting from the very first light, which is.. the birds see that too. And about, usually about 15 minutes after what’s called nautical twilight, the birds start singing. So if you start a recording at nautical twilight, you will catch the night quiet and then the first bird and so on. You know, the symphony of the dawn chorus in the springtime when the birds are breeding, the symphony of the dawn chorus will build up and climax and then die down when they all go off to get breakfast.

Phill (25:56):
That’s amazing. So here’s something a little more on the topic of the dawn chorus. I’m curious during the shelter in place, if you have managed to get out to any parks or to hear any dawn choruses during this time? Or how your soundscape has changed in your own neighborhood?

Dan Dugan (26:15):
Well, the spring birds are in here in the neighborhood, but of course it’s very noisy neighborhood. I’m in an industrial area. And I’ve had to miss most of my recordings. But I did do one. There’s a park, there’s the Presidio of San Francisco, which is the former Army base, which is a national park. And in the Presidio there’s an area called El Polin spring, which is a historic spring that the Spanish settlers used back in the 18th century. And I was invited to record there. Gosh, about… I guess about eight or 10 years ago, along with another friend from the Nature Sound Society. And then the park service did a huge remodeling of the area because there was an old Army dump in there, which was leaching out toxic water. So they had to basically tear down a forest, dig out the old Army dump, and then put it all back.

Dan Dugan (27:21):
The forest was non-native eucalyptus anyway, so they replanted with native plants. But of course it’s taken a few years, but that was about six years ago and now it’s pretty thoroughly built up, I mean grown up again. And so that’s one of the places that I do every year on a research permit. And I did get to do that. I did an overnight there about three weeks ago. That worked out very well. And it was during the shelter in place, so it was quieter there than it usually is. You know, it’s in a little dell, so it’s shielded from the city noise. But still, you know, there’s city noise that leaks into there. And I think you asked something about the demands of nature recording. One of the big demands of nature recording is really broad signal-to-noise ratio. It’s like symphonic orchestra recording, the same kind of thing.

Dan Dugan (28:16):
You know, when it gets quiet in a forest, if there isn’t any running water nearby, it gets really, really quiet. And same thing with the desert. You know, when there’s no wildlife activity in the desert. It’s… there’s just nothing. And so, you know, all electronic equipment has a noise level that it makes itself. And so you need to use equipment that has the lowest possible noise level and where that’s most critical is in the microphones. And this is the big difference between a hundred-dollar microphone and a thousand dollar microphone is that the a thousand dollar microphone can have a lower noise level if it’s made for that. And then of course, also you have the demand of humidity. Because when you’re working outside, and especially when you’re setting up overnight, the way we do with our protocol, it gets dewy and water condenses on everything. And most studio microphones can’t handle that. They start to pop and crackle and hiss. So we use — almost exclusively — the Sennheiser M K H series microphones, which have a different principle from ordinary condensers they’re what are called RF condensers. And those don’t care about humidity. So they’re the go-to microphones for soundscape recording.

Cary (29:45):
Interesting. That was going to be something I was going to ask you about, although I’m guessing that these Sennheiser mics are closer to the $1,000 category than the $100 category.

Dan Dugan (29:55):
They are. But there’s a brisk market in used equipment, you know, high quality microphones that are taken care of, have good resale value and so a mic that could cost $1,200 you can get for $700 used. So it’s not unreachable but it’s still substantial, it’s like when you’re into an SLR, you buy lenses that cost more than the camera. It’s the same thing with microphones. You know, you buy microphones that cost more than a recorder because that’s the really critical point where the signal-to-noise ratio and the survivability in the wild meet.

Cary (30:37):
So I’m guessing then that if someone wants to get started on a small budget, just recording soundscapes, just showing up with your iPhone isn’t enough. A little investment in additional equipment sounds like it is important to capturing things accurately.

Dan Dugan (30:53):
Well, I wouldn’t discourage …nature recording involves a lot of practice and you don’t need expensive equipment to practice. You can start out with a handheld recorder, digital recorder with like X, Y microphones on the end of it, like a Zoom or a Tascam, or Olympus. There are some very good little recorders and you can stand very still and make a stereo recording. And the microphones are a little noisy, but most environments, including natural environments are extremely demanding of the signal to noise. It’s only the really sweet ones, most like in the Sierras for example, most places you go, there’s water running nearby. And so that gives you a white noise background, which is usually more than what you get from your even low-cost microphones. So I’m just talking about the most-demanding situations. When you get a really quiet environment then all you hear is your microphones, and so the lower you can, you can get that,, the better you are. And of course in a quiet environment without water you can hear into the distance. It’s like a black velvet background and so really quiet spots for recording where there are a lot of birds, but there isn’t loud running water are really precious locations for a nature recording.

Phill (32:28):
And I guess that’s something I’d like to mention now that is very unique, especially for my lifetime. There’s never been a period — with maybe after 911 — there’s the halt in airline traffic. But just now locally, going to like Tilden Park in Berkeley, there are some little groves of eucalyptus trees where I don’t hear any anthropogenic noise anymore. Like in-between airplane flights and hikers or bikers. You don’t hear traffic you don’t hear right outside of the city, and I that seems to be very unprecedented.

Dan Dugan (33:02):
Yeah, it’s a wonderful opportunity.

Cary (33:04):
It is.

Dan Dugan (33:05):
Aircraft is the biggest problem because like for example, Yosemite National Park is at the intersection of a North-South and East-West jet way. And so, every five minutes there’s a jet over Yosemite. Now in the valley you have waterfalls in the Spring and those mask most of the airplanes. But you know, when you get out into the high country and other places where, where you don’t have the waterfalls, then you’ve got airplanes every few minutes. Nature recordists used to …when we were using heavy reels of tape and heavy batteries, when an airplane came, we would pause the recorder and curse the airplane for five minutes until it was gone. You know, because of a high altitude jet, which you can only see as a contrail that has a 30-mile-wide footprint of its roar. Which, when you’re turning things up, which we do in recording –we turn it up — then, you have to wait five or 10 minutes for that sound to go away.

Dan Dugan (34:10):
And you know, the interval with no human sound — the intervals are often small and far apart.

Phill (34:18):
Well, is it true — you mentioned how the waterfalls mask the airplane noise meaning in the same way that the water would mask any self noise. So just to mean that that noise covers up the unwanted noise, the water noise.

Dan Dugan (34:35):
Yes, that’s right. So as long as your system noise is lower than the environmental background, your microphone, self noise is lower than the level of the environmental background noise, then your system self- noise doesn’t matter.

Phill (34:49):
And it seems to me, and I’m curious if you can confirm this. And maybe we just don’t have enough data at this point, but it seems to me that hearing now, so many birds in the springtime seemingly more active than I would with airplane traffic. It seems to me that it’s not only the noise of jet engines masking birds, but also that disturbs them and alters their behavior because of that disruptive noise disrupting their communication channels. Can you speak to that at all?

Dan Dugan (35:26):
Well, yeah, there’ve been a couple of scientific studies in the last five years about just that. Let’s see, there was the phantom road experiment where they took a ridge out in the mountains somewhere and strung a bunch of speakers along this ridge and created a reproduction of a road with traffic on it. And then they had a whole system established of observing the wildlife around there and a little further away for control and studied what happened when the road noise was on and the road noise was off. And what was going on. And yes, it did. Some species didn’t care. Other species were very sensitive to it. And also there’s been a study of how bird songs have adjusted. I think this was in England where this was done. They found that when urban noise was higher, the birds were singing louder and at a higher pitch of the same species.

Dan Dugan (36:27):
So they would adjust, you know, they would try harder to be able to get their song out there because the songs are an important part of their whole life. You know, they’re mainly for, controlling territory. For warning off other interlopers that you have a nesting territory. A lot of wildlife divides up the landscape into cells, which are the territories of different individual animals. So they sing to tell the guy next door, “don’t you dare come over here, I’ll beat you up.” And you know, most bird song is actually aggressive. It’s not anything about beauty.

Cary (37:09):
That’s our filter.

Dan Dugan (37:11):
Yeah, it’s a threat. And so anyway, so that’s a couple of studies that have been done.

Phill (37:17):
Dan, is it true in that study that measuring the urban birds of this species and the country, birds of one species, that the songs diverged such that the urban birds were no longer mating with the rural ones? Is that the same study or…?

Dan Dugan (37:33):
I think that was a speculation. You know, that the subspecies could evolve that way. Birds already have regional dialects. This was discovered by Luis Baptista here in San Francisco at the Academy of Sciences. The late Luis Baptista did a large study on White Crown Sparrows and he found that they had local dialects. And in San Francisco, there were actually three dialects, which was rare because mostly in an area they’ll just be one dialect. If you compare them to a town, another town somewhere else, they would be singing a different dialect. But in San Francisco there are actually three dialects and so there’s already diversity in the dialects of songbirds. That’s more complicated than you can imagine.

Cary (38:26):
Wow, that’s pretty amazing. So of the three, were there like specific areas like you know, downtown versus out in Golden Gate Park or something?

Dan Dugan (38:37):
Yeah, there was, like Fort Funston on the Western edge was one species. I think in the parks and around the center was another — not species, another dialect. I imagine that if push came to shove that those were still could interbreed it’s just they wouldn’t be as attractive because they, you know, it’s like people wearing different clothing styles or something like that. They can interbreed, but what’s attractive to them is different in different in different regions.

Cary (39:05):
Yeah. They’re tribes sort of or something. Yeah. Interesting. I didn’t know this.

Dan Dugan (39:11):
And like Baptista also took apart the White Crown Sparrow song, which included actually a first name and a last name. The first little few notes was the bird’s individual name and then the latter part of the song was the regional name. So it was just like people, you know it said, “I’m Joe from the beach,” would sing.

Cary (39:34):
Wow, that’s amazing. I wonder how someone would be able to identify that. That’s what that sound was, a personal identification. Maybe just if it happens enough times from the same bird or something. I really wonder how you could dissect that.

Dan Dugan (39:54):
Well, they have a whole culture and some bird songs are learned and some are innate. Also, it’s different in different species. Some of them they — if you raise them in isolation, they sing the song. Others, and Baptista did this. Others, if you raise them in isolation, they sing a primitive song that that’s not the real song. They learn it from their parents.

Cary (40:17):
Phill, do you have any other questions?

Phill (40:19):
I just wanted to, maybe this is a very broad question, so maybe you don’t have an answer for it. But this is perhaps more philosophical, just that as someone who listens to nature or records nature, I can assume you have personal enjoyment that you get out of this, just being in nature and working with this equipment. But do you think that this practice of listening to nature has some value for our society or what that might be?

Dan Dugan (40:51):
Well, one of the main things that the Nature Sounds Society does is raise consciousness of the sound environment. You know we have a lecture demonstration that we do where we turn people on to listening, to natural environments and just a 40-minute lecture and I think people are changed forever. And, we like to do that.

Phill (41:20):
Excellent. Dan, thanks so much for chatting with us. I really appreciate you taking the time.

Cary (41:25):
Yeah, we normally are focused on noise, so it’s kind of nice to talk about other aspects of sound than just the aggravation of noise.

Dan Dugan (41:34):
Well, what’s there when the noise goes away.

Cary (41:35):
Exactly. Yeah, that’s what we’re all finding out.

Phill (41:39):
Do you have anything that we can help you plug or any — I know you mentioned perhaps doing an online course. But your website, anything that you would like us to promote for you?

Dan Dugan (41:49):
Well, it’s a www.naturesounds with an S …nature sounds, plural., as the organization. And we have a cycle of events that we do during the year, which of course are interrupted now. But, let’s see, starting in January or February, we give our presentation at the Snow Goose Festival in Chico, California. And then we have a workshop, which is a two-day post-production workshop in January or February where we teach nature recorders how to edit sound. You know, what to do with your recording after you’ve recorded it, how to turn it into a podcast or something like that. And then in the Spring we have a tech talk, which is mostly all about microphones. It’s a whole-day intensive about microphones because there’s so much to learn about microphones. You know, I told you a few things and there’s lots more.

Dan Dugan (42:48):
And so we just passed that having to be canceled. And then at the end of June, up in the Sierras, we have an annual workshop, a field recording workshop at the field campus of San Francisco State University. And that’s really great fun. We all go camp together and show each other the gear and people that are new get to try out other people’s recorders and stuff like that. And then, let’s see, in December we have — usually the first Saturday night in December — we have a listening party. The public is… interested people are welcome to come. And we gather at my lab and we play our favorite recordings from the year. So I think that’s the cycle of the year. So that’s what the Nature Sound Society does.

Cary (43:38):
I’d like to thank Dan Dugan for talking with us today. If you’re interested in learning more about him and his inventions, visit And to learn more about the Nature Sound Society, visit Thanks for listening.